For the past decade, the disability employment gap has stubbornly sat at around 30 per cent. In 2020, the employment rate for those with a disability was 53.7 per cent, compared to 82 per cent for people who do not – a gap of 28.4 percentage points. Numerous barriers prevent people with disabilities from securing the same opportunities as their peers, with the hiring process being one of the most notable stumbling blocks.

Research carried out by Opinium revealed that 51 per cent of applications from candidates with a disability result in an interview, compared to 69 per cent for applicants who do not. Then, at the next stage, those who are offered an interview are often left at a disadvantage, with organisations rarely acknowledging candidates’ differences and varying needs for support.

While increasing numbers of employers are recognising the importance of drawing diverse talent into the organisation, they must also acknowledge the difference between being a diverse company and an inclusive one. Setting and actively working towards diversity targets is vital, but so is creating an inclusive environment where all individuals have an equal opportunity to thrive.

Inclusion isn’t something that begins the moment your new hire walks through the door, it must be embedded into all aspects of the hiring process, from drafting job advertisements to onboarding the employee on their first day. At the interview stage, employers must be especially mindful of candidates’ differing needs.

Adjusting expectations

Traditionally, interviews have always been about first impressions. Upon their arrival, candidates are said to have just seven seconds to make a lasting impression on the hiring manager. What we don’t always consider however, is how biased these first impressions may be. According to Albert Mehrabian, a psychologist from the University of California, non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and appearance, account for 93 per cent of first impressions.

Employers have been socially conditioned to expect a firm handshake, well-maintained eye contact and free-flowing conversation – but it’s time for a shift in mindset. Some candidates, for example those who have autism, may not display conventional ‘people skills’ during an interview, but this does not necessarily impact their ability to perform the role. Thus, it shouldn’t hinder their chances of making it to the next stage.

Adhering to legal requirements

Generally speaking, The Equality Act 2010 prevents prospective employers from asking candidates about their health or disability prior to them receiving a job offer – except in the following circumstances:

  • To establish whether the applicant can partake in an assessment to determine their suitability for the job.
  • To determine whether any reasonable adjustments need to be made to enable a disabled person to participate in an assessment during the recruitment process.
  • To find out whether a job applicant would be able to undertake a function that is intrinsic to the job.
  • To monitor diversity among job applicants.
  • To support ‘positive action’ in employment for disabled people.
  • If there is an occupational requirement for the person to be disabled.

For this reason, employers should always consider whether it may be necessary – and lawful – to ask a candidate if they would like to disclose any disabilities or health conditions, rather than shying away from what is often perceived as an uncomfortable conversation.

If they choose to disclose their personal information, candidates always have the right to ask for reasonable adjustments to be made during job interviews and assessments, so that their disability does not put them at a disadvantage. And, bound by The Equality Act 2010, employers must provide these adjustments upon request.

Enabling inclusion for all

As candidates aren’t legally required to disclose their disability and employers aren’t usually permitted to question a candidate’s health, it’s crucial that all interviews are inclusive. Organisations should aim to level the playing field for each and every candidate, not just when an individual requests additional assistance.

Some ways in which hiring practices can be inclusive, is for employers to ask every candidate if they require any additional support during the interview as a standard practice and ensuring that there is always stair-free access to the interview room. Additionally, asking direct and unambiguous questions that remove the need for hypothetical answers is crucial. These small shifts in organisational behaviour can help to dismantle one of the barriers to progression that people with disabilities face in business.

Practical assessments, such as those which mimic the tasks that will be performed by the successful candidate, can be an excellent way for applicants to showcase their relevant skills, rather than describing them – thus minimising unconscious bias. For instance, situational interviews that require interviewees to envision their response to a hypothetical scenario are not always inclusive of everyone. Instead, switching the approach to ask ‘tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult client’ can aid employers gauge skillset and behaviour while also allowing candidates to draw from them own real life experiences.

Removing invisible obstacles

Regardless of the type of interview – physical or virtual – employers must consider the environment in which it will take place. Small, cramped meeting rooms or loud, bustling offices may be distracting or overwhelming for someone with heightened senses and can present additional challenges for those with physical disabilities.

The interview room should always be clearly signposted and, if possible, a colleague should greet the candidate upon their arrival. Providing a brief agenda a few days prior to the interview will help to ease any nerves, allowing candidates to better understand who they will be meeting, where they need to be and how they should prepare.

If the interview is virtual, the same still applies. Applicants should be given time to familiarise themselves with the technology that will be used and have time to request an alternative arrangement if necessary. Candidates who are hard of hearing, for example, may prefer to use a particular video conferencing platform – such as Microsoft Teams, which has a ‘live captions’ function – or have an interpreter attend the interview too.

Employers should be proud to have a diverse talent pipeline, but they must have the necessary measures in place to ensure that their interview process is inclusive too. By setting systems in place that directly reduce biases, altering expectations and standardising the process for all candidates, they are levelling the playing field for applicants of all backgrounds and abilities.